The Bihar government passing a legislation that makes the abandonment of parents punishable with a non-bailable jail term would seem a strong step forward in the state’s attempt to protect its significant ageing population—over 7.4% of the population is over 60 years of age. Yet, not only does it smack of moral policing and cultural conservatism, it looks downright impracticable. The new law does not offer any clarity regarding its implementation, and, in its attempt to do the impossible by legislating affection, it fails to account for the emotional, mental and, sometimes, even physical abuse—of which parents and children may equally be perpetrators and victims—rampant in homes. Further, the decision to make this a non-bailable offence seems like an overkill in light of the pre-existing Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007, under which children/legal heirs are obliged to ensure the well-being of their parents/immediate elderly relatives through monthly financial support, a National Policy for Older People, 1999, a draft National Policy on Senior Citizens, and Bihar’s own Old Age Pension Scheme.
While Bihar government’s methods are misguided, the problem remains real—abandonment of aged parents/relatives is both a humanitarian and a financial crisis for the state. Its solution, however, lies in garnering support from groups whose traditional role has been to extend social support—temples/religious communities. As central a part of Indian culture as the joint family, temples, with their abundance of funds, are uniquely positioned to take up the mantle of catering to the needs of the ageing sections of society in light of the growing nuclearisation of families and, for many, severe economic constraints. How is punishing a poor daily-wage earner for failing to take care of his parents going to solve the problem? Indeed, it is going to push other dependents into destitution. The Bihar government will do well to understand that punitive action for abandonment is not going to solve the problem; indeed, it may exacerbate both destitution, and elderly abuse if the family becomes vindictive towards elderly members.